The Biggest Difference Between Senior and Junior Employees Is Not Time

Photo by Headway on Unsplash

This was originally posted on a UX Design group on Slack as an answer to what makes a designer “senior” vs. “junior” (or mid-level). Sharing here because I believe it applies in virtually every industry, to some degree.

First, I’ll reprint my original answer. Then below I’ll go over each to further explain how it applies to any industry.


To me, “Senior” is a person who:
— has seen some heavy 💩
— has gone through some heavy 💩
 — has designed some heavy and gnarly 💩 well
 — can deal well when more heavy 💩 comes down
— knows how to critique well when you are staring at others’ work that looks like 💩

If you have managed to completely avoid interacting or dealing with heavy 💩 for 10 years, you are going to have a hard time convincing me you can work at the “senior” level where heavy 💩 can be abundant.


Let’s define heavy 💩

In this case we are talking about tasks, projects or situations that are outside the norm, or unexpected. It doesn’t necessarily need to be negative or grave, but likely leaves you feeling that you are in uncharted territory.

This is not to be confused with bull 💩, or stupid 💩, or 💩 hitting the fan. Think more along the lines of a hurricane hitting your work life.

A person who has seen some heavy 💩

Examples of heavy 💩 could be an architect assigned to a building that is sinking, a pilot that was on a plane that landed without landing gear, a software engineer that discovered their entire database of customers was suddenly dropped/missing.

Having actually witnessed heavy 💩 first-hand is often a defining moment for many employees. For many people, the first experience of something gnarly and outside the norm can result in shock, to some degree, and your reaction to it can be (understandably) not optimal. The next time it or something similar happens, your reaction to it may be less shock and more optimal or effective.

The U.S. military performs “confidence building” with service members and put them in a tear gas chamber, or mace them, or shoot live weapons near them so that the next time it happens they are less likely to spend precious time freaking out and can now recover quicker by relying on their past experience.

Companies hiring a “senior” level employee are also expecting to gain and utilize their confidence from past experiences in the hopes they are less likely to freak out when seeing some heavy 💩 go down.

A person who has gone through some heavy 💩

It’s one thing to be a witness to some heavy 💩 going down. It’s a whole other bag of cats to have gone through it and come out the other end. The architect that found a way to stop the building from sinking, the pilot that actually helped in landing the broken plane, and the software engineer that actually recovered the lost data, they all had to get past the “oh 💩!” moment and into the mode of fixing the heavy 💩 (or in some cases, surviving the heavy 💩).

This doesn’t mean that every 💩 situation had to turn out 🌹 to be a contribution toward your becoming a senior employee. The real value is in you having been there throughout the process to assess the 💩 storm and make corrective measures.

In the software industry, we see a myriad of issues on a near daily basis. Just because you built it doesn’t guarantee you know how to immediately fix heavy 💩. Often it’s during the times of heavy 💩 that we learn how to fix it. A software engineer that only ever built software and never had to fix the bugs and work through the heavy 💩 that comes up is missing half the experience.

Companies hiring a “senior” level employee are expecting to get access to your knowledge of how to solve a broad range of problems in your area. You may not be able to immediately solve every problem, but at this stage most of them should not be new to you.

A person who has designed some heavy and gnarly 💩 well

(In this case, we are talking “heavy” as in a big or complex deal.) While originally written for designers, I think it applies to virtually every industry. A nurse that wrote a set of procedures for their ER to handle overdoses for a new street drug, a UI designer that helped design Google’s Material Design System— in both cases they came up with some heavy 💩 that helps others be successful and work better.

Having actually designed heavy 💩 first-hand is another defining moment for junior employees. For many, the first experience of designing something gnarly or outside the norm can be an overwhelming task. And your first approach to it will likely need many iterations to even get working, let alone optimal.

Again, companies hiring a “senior” level employee are expecting to gain and utilize their past experiences in approaching the design of heavy 💩.

A person who can deal well when more heavy 💩 comes down

Heavy 💩 happens. That’s a part of life and work that you just can’t avoid. Shouldn’t avoid.

The architect that finds out their sinking building was built on a toxic dump, the ER nurse that discovers their patient with the overdose is pregnant — heavy 💩 just doubled-down. Now comes the real test of your mettle.

Again, it’s one thing to recognize heavy 💩, and another to work through or design some heavy 💩. In my experience, the thing that has the biggest impact on teams and companies is how you deal with repeated heavy 💩. Could be the same heavy 💩 again, or some heavy 💩 coming down in the middle of tackling the previous heavy 💩, or the feeling this place has more heavy 💩 than your previous companies combined. Either way, how you deal with it has a big impact on teams, and especially junior employees.

As Dylan Wilbanks put it, what makes you senior “depends on how you respond to the challenges in front of you.

Companies hiring a “senior” level employee are also expecting to gain a person that sets a good example for junior employees. A senior level employee that has a bad attitude or approach toward dealing with heavy 💩 (or somehow needlessly escalates heavy 💩 into epic 💩) can be a poor example for junior employees. And that is deeply unfair to junior employees, as well as the next company that hires them.

A person who knows how to critique well when you are staring at others’ work that looks like 💩

Originally written for designers, but still applies across industries. We’ve all been there: you are reviewing a coworker’s work that is a poor effort, at best. The previous nurse’s stitches look like they were put in while wearing boxing gloves, or the character artist drew something that looks like a furry turtle instead of a fierce dragon. Racing through your mind is “what’s this 💩?” Hell, I’ve had creative directors lean over my desk and actually say those words. File under ‘not helpful.’

While I wouldn’t call this a moment of heavy 💩, I do consider it a moment that can easily and needlessly turn into some heavy 💩. As Jared Spool puts it: critiquing is something that is “hard to do well and easy to do poorly”.

Those who can critique others’ work well often leave team members feeling empowered and activated. Do it poorly, and you were better off not having done it in the first place.

Companies hiring a “senior” level employee expect to get someone that can critique the work of junior employees that leave then feeling empowered and activated; not demoralized. Just as how you deal with heavy 💩 when it comes down, critiquing others’ work poorly can have a serious impact on morale and end up teaching junior employees bad habits.

tl;dr / in conclusion

Becoming a “senior” level employee is more than sticking it out for X-number of years, or checking off some skills boxes listed on LinkedIn. That being said, a junior employee that spent a year going through never-ending moments of heavy 💩 does not automatically mean they are senior. It’s striking a balance of years worked + skills learned + having gone through various heavy 💩.

As the old saying goes “Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.”

A senior level employee is:

— skillful and quick on their feet due to years of past experiences
— a good example (and mentor!) to juniors and mid-level
 — one that runs toward fires
 — one who empowers others
 — and more importantly, teach juniors how to handle heavy 💩 well

Bonus: Pro Tips

  1. While tackling the design of some heavy 💩, a progressive team will ensure there are one or more junior employees on the project — with appropriate mentoring in place — to allow them to gain this valuable experience.
  2. Don’t shield junior employees from heavy 💩. Just like when the family pet dies — there is no hiding that from your kids, nor should you. Get the facts, then loop them in and allow them to ask questions. Inspired by this Twitter exchange:
Screenshot for preservation. Source